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Sunday, May 19, 2024

‘China intentionally hit PH ships’

Manila, Beijing trade complaints; PCG to finish probe in 5 days

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Manila said Monday that Chinese vessels intentionally hit Philippine boats at the weekend, escalating a diplomatic row over two collisions in the South China Sea.

The countries have traded blame over Sunday’s incidents near Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the Spratly Islands, with both sides filing diplomatic protests and releasing videos to support their accusations.

The two collisions occurred during a Philippine resupply mission to troops stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, which was intentionally grounded on the shoal in 1999 to assert Manila’s territorial claims.

Philippine officials accused a Chinese coast guard ship and a “militia” vessel of “dangerous maneuvering” that resulted in collisions with a Philippine resupply boat and a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel.

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro took it one step further Monday, labeling the Chinese actions near Ayungin Shoal deliberate.

But China lodged a complaint with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), expressing its “strong dissatisfaction” over the incident.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the Philippines in a statement released Monday evening to stop “stirring up trouble” and “making dangerous moves” by “making provocations at sea.”

Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said the Philippine vessels were trespassing into the Ren’ai Reef area, using China’s name for the shoal.

China has said a “slight collision” happened after the Philippine resupply boat ignored “multiple warnings and deliberately passed through law enforcement in an unprofessional and dangerous manner”.

In the other incident, China accused the Philippine Coast Guard of reversing in a “premeditated manner” into a Chinese fishing vessel.

But in a press conference, Teodoro said: “Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels, in blatant violation of international law, harassed and intentionally hit Unaiza May 2 and Philippine Coast Guard vessel BRP Cabra.”

“We are here to really decry in the strongest possible terms this egregious violation and illegal act within the (Philippines’) 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and the obfuscation of the truth by China’s distorting the story to fit its own ends.”

His comments came hours after President Marcos met with security officials and ordered the PCG to investigate the incident, which was “being taken seriously at the highest level of government,” his communications team said. The PCG said it would complete its probe in five days.

“President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. called a command conference this morning with all security authorities to discuss the latest violation by China in the West Philippine Sea,” the Presidential Communications Office said in its Facebook post.

PCO said President Marcos is taking China’s latest incursion inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone seriously.

“The incident, brought about by dangerous, illegal, and reckless maneuvers by vessels of the China Coast Guard, caused damage to a Philippine vessel within our exclusive economic zone and is being taken seriously at the highest level of government,” the PCO said.

Earlier Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) summoned China’s ambassador to Manila, Huang Xilian, and lodged a diplomatic protest over the incident.

Spokeswoman Teresita Daza said the ambassador was unavailable and was represented by his deputy chief of mission, Zhou Zhiyong.

“Ayungin Shoal is part of our exclusive economic zone and continental shelf and we have sovereign rights and jurisdiction over it,” Daza said, using the Philippine name for the shoal.

“We have every right to carry out legitimate activities in our maritime zones. We do not accept any form of interference,” Daza said, even as she pointed out that China, as a major power, should be contributing to the peace and stability in the region.

The Philippines reiterated its call for China to stop “provocative actions,” warning that its attempts to block Manila’s resupply missions could have “disastrous results.”

Manila’s longtime ally Washington has led a chorus of international criticism of China’s alleged interference in the routine resupply mission to the tiny garrison on the grounded BRP Sierra Madre.

The US State Department on Sunday reiterated its mutual defense pact with the Philippines “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, and aircraft –- including those of its Coast Guard –- anywhere in the South China Sea”.

‘Arbitral ruling is binding’

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, and has ignored a 2016 international ruling that says its claims have no legal basis.

Ayungin Shoal is about 200 kilometers from the western Philippine island of Palawan, and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan island.

Previously warm ties between Manila and Beijing have cooled since Marcos took power in June 2022, as he seeks stronger relations with the United States.

The Marcos administration has publicly criticized Chinese actions in the South China Sea, publishing photos and videos to support its claims of Chinese harassment and the blocking of its vessels.

Beijing has released its own images of the incidents.

“We do not respond to lies, we only comment on facts,” Jay Tarriela, the PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, said in a post on the social media platform X Monday.

“Our narratives are always backed with compelling images and unedited videos.”

Despite the challenges, the Philippines would “continue to do what is necessary” to supply its troops on the BRP Sierra Madre with provisions, said Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general of the National Security Council.

“This is the Philippines implementing the 2016 arbitral ruling,” Malaya told reporters Monday.

“The arbitral ruling is binding not only to the Philippines but also to China.”

Manila and Beijing have a long history of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Tensions flared in August when China Coast Guard vessels used a water cannon against a Philippine resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal, preventing one of the boats from delivering its cargo.

US Support

The United States said China violated international law by “intentionally interfering with the Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation.”

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in the face of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Coast Guard and maritime militia’s dangerous and unlawful actions obstructing an Oct. 22

Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas [Ayungin] Shoal in the South China Sea,” the US State Department said on Monday.

“The United States reaffirms that Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels and aircraft—including those of its Coast Guard—anywhere in the South China Sea,” it added.

It lamented that China put the safety of the Filipino crew aboard in jeopardy as the latter also impeded the resupply mission, which the vessels were undertaking by the time.

The US asserted that the Ayungin Shoal belongs to the Philippine exclusive economic zone based on international law.

A 2016 arbitral ruling stated that there is no legal basis for China to be entitled to the maritime zones in the said atoll, the US added.

“The unsafe maneuvers on Oct. 22 and the PRC water cannoning of a Philippine vessel on Aug. 5 are the latest examples of provocative PRC measures in the South China Sea to enforce its expansive and unlawful maritime claims, reflecting disregard for other states lawfully operating in the region,” the US statement said.

Former US Air Force colonel and security analyst Raymond Powell said the Chinese behavior was “utterly reckless and outrageous.”

“Intense harassment continues as of 0836 (8:36am)—all of this while the vastly outnumbered PCG ships on an escort mission never got within 10km of the shoal. This is utterly reckless and outrageous behavior by China, and somebody is going to get hurt,” Powell said on the X social media platform.

“This one, in terms of how close the ships came to one another and actually the fact that they actually touched one another on at least two occasions that we know of, is certainly marking a serious escalation on China’s part,” said Powell, director of the monitoring team SeaLight at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said they have not yet decided on the legal action to recommend to the President. He added that it will take time to study the case carefully.

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